WILLIAMSTOWN - Oscar Wilde and Damon Runyon were born 30 years and an ocean apart.
Wilde, born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854, was an extravagant novelist, essayist, poet, conversationalist and playwright whose keen wit targeted, among other things, the pretenses of the upper class London society in which he circulated.
Runyon, born in New York in 1884, was a writer and journalist who prowled Manhattan's streets, particularly Times Square and the surrounding neighborhoods, sketching in words the foibles of the underclass - gangsters, mobsters, gamblers and touts. Words were their stock and trade. The two never met. Until now at Williamstown Theatre Festival where Wilde's words have been given Runyonesque tones in director David Hyde Pierce's treatment of Wilde's most famous, and most widely produced, comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest."
The production is on the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, where it opened Thursday night (review in Saturday's Berkshire Eagle) and is scheduled to run through July 14.
"Think of it as a family of 'Guys and Dolls'- style gangsters moving to 'Downton Abbey'-style London," the Festival's press material says.
Hyde Pierce stressed that he has made no significant changes in Wilde's sublime comedy about two city gents who lead double lives - one in London, one in the country - and the complications that ensue as a result.
"My goal is not to change the play," Hyde Pierce said during a late afternoon news conference at Williams Inn. "No words have been changed; little has been cut and anything that has been cut is something I'd cut even if I were doing a traditional version."
It's the voices that sold Hyde Pierce - a four-time Emmy Award-winning actor for his role as Niles Crane on the longrunning NBC sitcom, "Frasier" - on the notion of doing "Earnest" this way.
"I had been reading a Runyon story," Hyde Pierce said, "and it just came to me. I kept hearing Runyon's voice in Wilde's characters."
It's all in the language, the words.
"Reading Runyon you find his stories read as well in British as they do in his native New York gangsterese," Hyde Pierce said. "And you find the reverse with Wilde's words, especially in 'Earnest.' " Elaborating during a halfhour interview following the news conference, Hyde Pierce said he was struck by the ways in which Runyon and Wilde used language and the ways in which they created their own specific milieu.
"(Their writing) is all filtered through their unique imaginations," Hyde Pierce said.
Directing is a relatively new venture for Hyde Pierce, who cut his directing teeth on a Broadway-bound musical, "It Should Have Been You," starring Tyne Daly (who is playing the formidable Lady Bracknell in "Earnest"), which they premiered last fall at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J.
Acting on stage and under the rigors of filming a sitcom week after week has taught Hyde Pierce a lot about directing.
"Working with enough actors and directors with a variety of styles, I've learned that there is not one way to play a role," Hyde Pierce said.
"What ends up happening is that we all reach a middle ground. We all end up in the same play in a different way.
"The thing about directing, too, is that you feel like a dad; you feel very paternal about the play and everyone in it.
"The challenge is always staying open to new ideas," Hyde Pierce said. "I do a lot of preparation before rehearsals begin. You have to be ready to throw all that out once you get started."
Returning to "Earnest," Hyde Pierce said he's always been attracted to the play not only by Wilde's language but also by the characters themselves.
"These are characters audiences like to spend time with," he said. "The trick is to make them (both) real and whimsical; to walk that line always."
"Part of what we're dealing with," Hyde Pierce said earlier during the news conference, "is that concept of the play as a souffle; a very rich souffle."
To reach Jeffrey Borak: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6212.